The House of Representatives just passed a farm bill, which overlays a Byzantine political calculus atop what ought to be a simple policy question. Should the government subsidize business owners because their business is agriculture? The answer — even to somebody relatively friendly to government, like me — is obviously not. Running a farm is not inherently more virtuous or necessary than running a gas station or a bookstore. Farmers earn more than the average American. Washington should get out of the business of paying farmers directly (or indirectly, through price supports that drive up food costs) altogether.
The political complication that comes into play is that farm subsidies have traditionally been packaged together with food stamps. Food stamps strike me as an especially meritorious program. Giving people money because they’re so poor they struggle to eat regularly makes way, way, way more sense than giving people money because they’re in a particular (and generally lucrative) line of work. You could replace food stamps with some other kind of cash grant, but the main idea of helping people because they're poor is sound.
Historically, the two programs have passed together. There’s some policy rationale for this. Some of the farm subsidies drive up the price of food, making it harder for poor people to buy the food and thus making it more necessary to subsidize them. But the main rationale for joining food stamps is political. It gets urban liberals to vote for farm subsidies that hurt their constituents, and it gets rural conservatives to tolerate food stamps that they’d otherwise oppose. And since advocates of both farm subsidies and food stamps fear losing their program more than anything else, they strongly endorse keeping them together.
The coalition between the two has come undone in recent weeks. Why? Because under President Obama, conservatives have gone from not caring much about food stamps to detesting food stamps as the emblem of Obama’s Chicago-style urban socialist welfare dependency administration. Food stamp spending has increased, not because Obama is handing them out like candy but because the number of poor, hungry people has dramatically increased since the Great Recession.
House Republicans decided to pair their renewal of farm subsidies with huge cuts to food stamps, driving away most Democrats and causing the bill to fail. This embarrassed the Republican leadership, which, after lengthy arm-twisting, decided to pass a bill with just farm subsidies.
The Obama administration’s threat to veto the bill assails it for lacking “sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms.” The irony of this has really passed by everybody here: This is a domestic spending program where House Republicans are spending more than Obama wants to spend. Now, some House Republicans would like to spend less on farm subsidies, but they’re willing to maintain the status quo. They’re not willing to maintain the status quo on food stamps.
Indeed, the incredible position of many conservatives is that the government should be handing out money to people because they run a farm, but should not hand out money to people who happen to be poor. Heritage Action for America, a conservative lobbying group, has run an ad arguing that you “can call a food-stamp bill a farm bill, but it’s still a food-stamp bill.” The whole accusation here is that what purports to be a farm bill is really a plan to “bankroll president Obama’s food-stamp agenda.”
It’s no longer novel that conservative Republicans have positioned themselves to Obama’s left on domestic spending that benefits their own constituencies. We have seen three years of Republicans attacking Obama for robbing Grandma’s Medicare. But at least Medicare is a justifiable program. The existence of farm subsidies is insane, and the fact that a party that hates government so much it engages in a continuous guerilla war of shutdowns, manufactured currency crises, and outright sabotage can’t eliminate it may be the most telling indicator of the GOP’s venality. They only hate necessary government spending. Totally unjustifiable spending is fine with them.